Looking Forward: Who were the winners and the losers of the Coaching Carousel?
The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs.
In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at who were the winners, the losers and the people that couldn’t move the needle during this year’s Coaching Carousel.
THESE ARE YOUR BIG WINNERS
MEMPHIS: To me, Memphis was easily the biggest winner of this year’s coaching carousel, and it’s not just because they hired Tubby Smith, which was arguably the best hire of the spring. Tubby has coached at Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota and Texas Tech, and the only place that he didn’t significantly exceed expectations during his tenure was at Kentucky, where he won a national title, reached three more Elite 8s and notched five SEC titles in ten seasons. I wrote a column on it at the time. He’ll make Memphis relevant again, and not just in the AAC standings.
But the other part of it is that the Tigers got Josh Pastner’s contract off the books. Pastner was guaranteed more than $10 million over the next four years, which is too much money to just walk away from and, given the relationship between the Tiger fanbase and their former head coach, too expensive for the University to afford. When donors tighten the pursestrings and fans stop showing up to the games, it’s tough to bring in revenue. Memphis wasn’t the only winner in that deal ...
JOSH PASTNER: ... because Pastner needed a reboot about as badly as Memphis needed him gone. He had lost the fanbase in Memphis. They didn’t support the team, they didn’t support him and if he was going to coach for the rest of his contract, his life in town was going to be almost as miserable as his teams would be. Instead, he was given more than $1 million to go away, and by “go away” I mean become the head coach of Georgia Tech. So he got paid to leave Memphis for a program in a better conference and in Atlanta, a city that he had pulled two McDonald’s All-Americans out of. Not a bad deal.
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RELATED: Next year’s Breakout Stars
OKLAHOMA STATE: Like Memphis, Oklahoma State was dealing with a coach in Travis Ford that was losing games and, in the process, losing fans. What better way to invigorate a fan base than to hire a head coach that plays an entertaining style of basketball and just so happens to be coming off of a tournament run that saw him get No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin to within a miracle tip-in of the Sweet 16 in a season that capped a three-year run with three NCAA touraments, an 89-14 overall record and a staggering 59-1 league record. That’s what the Pokes got in Brad Underwood, who has Big 12 pedigree having coaching under Bob Huggins and Frank Martin at Kansas State. (More on that in a bit.)
VCU: Just one year removed from #ShakaWatch finally ending, as Smart took over at Texas for Rick Barnes, the Rams once again have one of the best up-and-coming young head coaches in the business in Will Wade. After phenomenal season winning 25 games, an Atlantic 10 regular season title and a first round game in the NCAA tournament, Wade was a favorite to replace Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt, in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Instead, he re-upped on an eight-year deal with VCU.
TEXAS TECH AND CHRIS BEARD: This was a match made in heaven. Beard, who just five years ago wasn’t even in the Division I coaching ranks, took Arkansas-Little Rock to the second round of the NCAA tournament in his first season with the Trojans and parlayed that into the UNLV job (for a week) and then the Texas Tech job. The Red Raiders lost Tubby Smith, who led them back to the NCAA tournament, but landed a guy that A) spent 10 seasons in Lubbock as an assistant coach and B) actually wants to be at Texas Tech, which he has called his dream job.
VANDERBILT: The Commodores needed to part ways with Kevin Stallings after nearly two decades. They did. And they replaced him with Bryce Drew, who had won four Horizon League regular season titles in five years, getting to the NCAA tournament twice. He was one of the hottest mid-major coaching names in recent years. There’s not much more to say than that.
JAMIE DIXON: Dixon went to 11 NCAA tournaments in 13 seasons with Pitt after taking over for Ben Howland, but in the latter years of his coaching tenure, the Panthers had plateaued. Thanks, realignment. Anyway, Dixon and Pitt needed to go their separate ways, and Dixon ended up getting the gig at his alma mater, TCU, which is a better job than people realize. Great facilities, donors with deep pockets, a highly-regarded athletic director and a spot in the middle of the fertile recruiting grounds of Dallas.
AND THESE ARE YOUR LOSERS
DELAWARE: It’s mid-May, nearly two months after former head coach Monte’ Ross was fired. The Blue Hens have not only not hired a replacement yet, they only last week hired the new athletic director that will be hiring said replacement. In the meantime, the program is down to just four scholarship players after their top six scorers all transferred. Good luck finding someone to take that job.
UNLV: I actually think that UNLV made a pretty good hire with Marvin Menzies. He’s a member of the Rick Pitino coaching tree that had a lot of success at New Mexico State and will come relatively cheap for a program that is more or less broke.
The problem is that their coaching search was embarrassingly public. It started with rumors that Rick Pitino was going to leave Louisville for Vegas. That didn’t happen. Then Mick Cronin deftly used the Rebels as leverage to get an extension out of Cincinnati. Chris Beard eventually took the job, but after it took more than a week for the Board of Regents to actually approve his contract, Beard ended up leaving for Texas Tech a week later. And all of that happened in a year where UNLV fired Dave Rice in January, roughly eight months after they extended him instead of looking for a replacement. And do you know who they could have hired last spring? Ben Howland.
There’s no way around it: UNLV’s search was an absolute embarrassment. It’s no wonder Menzies took over a team with just two scholarship players.
KANSAS STATE: I’m not saying that Bruce Weber deserved to be fired. He’s been to two tournament in four seasons in Manhattan. But he’s also 32-33 overall and 13-23 in the Big 12 the last two seasons. So there’s justification for a coaching change, especially when you consider that this was the year where Brad Underwood would be leaving Stephen F. Austin. Underwood is a Kansas State alum who spent six seasons as an assistant with Bobby Huggins and Frank Martin and won 89 games the last three seasons. He had all the makings of the man that would spark the resurgence of the Kansas State program.
Instead, Underwood went to Oklahoma State, a Big 12 rival. Weber is probably coaching for his job next season.
STEVE PIKIELL: I actually think Steve Pikiell is a really good coach. It took a few years, but he built Stony Brook into a mid-major powerhouse out of basically nothing. With so many key pieces graduating this year, it was his time to move on, so he took over at ... Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights haven’t had a winning season since 2006 (shoutout to Quincy Douby), they haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1991 and, since their last tournament trip, they’ve finished with a .500 record in league play just twice. Never better than .500, and never better than fifth in their league standings.
And now they’re in the Big Ten, meaning that a team in a region where no one cares about college sports will be playing “local” rivals like Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Purdue and Maryland. Good luck, Steve.
THESE HIRES? WELL ... WHATEVER
STANFORD: On the one hand, the Cardinal made a needed change getting rid of Johnny Dawkins. That’s probably a good thing (more on that in a second). And they hired a guy in Jerod Haase who is from California and is a part of the North Carolina coaching tree. He spent four seasons at UAB, reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament with an upset win over No. 3 seed Iowa State in 2015 and winning the CUSA regular season title in 2016. It’s not a bad hire, but it’s hard to get overly excited about a guy that finished better than fourth place in a league like CUSA just once.
CENTRAL FLORIDA: UCF landed Johnny Dawkins, a member of Coach K’s coaching tree, after they fired Donnie Jones. But he’s also a guy that was run out of town by Stanford after eight disappointing seasons, one trip to the NCAA tournament and a pair of NIT titles. Just how invigorated can a fan base be by hiring someone else’s cast off?
PITTSBURGH: The same can be asked of Pitt. They got rid of Jamie Dixon, whose success with the Panthers had plateaued, for Kevin Stallings, who was pushed out the door by Vanderbilt because ... his career had plateaued.
There’s also the issue of expectations here. Stallings has a very well-respected coach among the peers in his profession. Maybe he just needs to start over at a new school, but when Pitt fans are expecting Pitt natives Sean and Archie Miller to want to come home -- and when local reporters are breaking “news” that it’s going to happen -- anything less is going to be seen as a disappointment.
GEORGIA TECH: The Yellow Jackets ran into the exact same issue Pitt did. They fired Brian Gregory and landed Josh Pastner, who was no longer wanted at Memphis, when everyone was expecting athletic director Mike Bobinski to make a splash. He used to be the Xavier athletic director. You know who coaches at Xavier? Chris Mack! You know who else used to coach at Xavier? Sean Miller! You know who Sean Miller’s little brother is? Archie Miller!
There were all these connections, except none of them had any chance to happen. So while it feels like Georgia Tech got stuck with Pastner, in reality they picked a 38-year old that had been to four NCAA tournaments in his first five seasons as a head coach over Pat Kelsey, a former Xavier assistant that has yet to take Winthrop to a single postseason event in four seasons.